Tributes to two painters from Ramingining in Arnhem Land, George Milpurrurru and David Malangi who helped to place this region on the map. Paintings were included in the 1979 Sydney Biennale. The iconography, style of painting and the public response to their work and interaction with the wider art world is discussed. Both of these major artists died during the 1990s after careers of around four decades.
As part of the group of Ramingining artists whose work during the 1980s and 1990s placed this central Arnhem Land region firmly on the art map, George Milpurrurru drew his essential inspiration from the land and its sacred narratives. His work, however, though rooted in the aesthetic traditions and ceremonial conventions taught to him by his father, was in both its size and sense of design equally innovative in extending and adding new schematizations from the earlier generation of artists. This sense of adventuring into new territory was epitomised by his extremely large painting of men hunting in their canoes created especially for the 1979 Sydney Biennale.
As one of the first Arnhem Land artists to respond to the opportunities of an expanding gallery scene in the 1980s, his solo exhibition in Sydney in 1985 at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery exemplified his capacity to work within both his traditional totemic idiom and extend into a wide-ranging artistic celebration of everyday Arnhem Land scenery and hunting activities. If Milpurrurru's totemic imagery carries on the work and teachings of his father Ngulmarmar, the other side of his output reveals a strong exploratory streak which, for a period included three dimensional additions such as woven fishing traps and birds' nests. His images of collecting magpie geese eggs in the Arafura Swamp and other hunting and food collecting daily life scenes reflect the emotive ties of the swamp to the artist and inspired Milpurrurru to significantly widen the range of subject matter beyond the formal totemic and ceremonial subjects of his other work.
This holistic approach to the range of artistic expression is paralleled by the artist's fierce attachment to his own country of the Arafura Swamp land and his daily life, exemplified by his idiosyncratic but highly successful method of shooting buffalo while perched in a tree, or as a dancer and spear fighter. The consummate focus that Milpurrurru brought to all three activities denotes a single minded sense of balance and of challenge and skill, an attitude equally reflected in his approach to his art.
Whether depicting formal totemic imagery such as Warriny - flying fox, Djanyarr - the totemic dog, Karritjarr the rainbow serpent, or more narrative everyday hunting scenes, it is in his approach to design and graphic precision that perhaps most mark out Milpurrurru's artistic individuality. In particular, in his compositions dealing with the above and Mewal - Honey Spirit Dreaming, the artist's approach to spatial organisation carries a strong element of gestalt technique. The play between foregrounded and backgrounded solid areas, enhanced by clever use of the bare bark itself or single colour patterning incorporates a complex shifting of visual focus which in the least figurative of his works can become quite mesmerizing after a period of uninterrupted viewing. If the early public response to his work was partly based on the immediate accessibility of his compositions through its linear precision and 'decorativeness', (especially the floral bat dropping designs) the subtlety embedded within the surface layering and interlayering of surfaces blocks created a much deeper subliminal response.
Beyond the purely narrative reading -'the story' - and identifying the core images, this takes the viewer into a much closer contact with elemental, compositional questions of colour and line and the process of filling an empty space. The crossover between cultural information and an aesthetic where individual style becomes the defining characteristic is perhaps Milpurrurru's most significant contribution to the 1980s in Arnhem Land where major explorations were made among second and third generation artists to redefine the earlier structural parameters passed onto them by their fathers and grandfathers. Extensive travel to attend exhibitions including representation in both the 1979 and 1986 Sydney Biennales enabled the artist to observe and engage with the wider art world especially during the 1980s when Aboriginal projection of cultural and political aspirations were focused through the build-up to the 1988 Bicentennial year. His leading contribution to the 200-pole Aboriginal Memorial permanently housed in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra reflects his commitment to a wider cultural agenda beyond the confines of his own country and keen sense of the underlying national issues confronting the core question of Land Rights.
The inclusion of bark paintings from Ramingining in the 1979 Sydney Biennale was one of several defining high points in the lengthy career of Arnhem Land painter and sculptor David Malangi. As an artist whose working life spanned four decades, his work was seminal to the transformation of Arnhem Land art from its isolated location and largely 'curiosity' status into the dynamic position that it now holds within the complexity and diversity of contemporary Australian artistic expression. From the earliest part of his career starting on the island of Milingimbi and through the 1950s and 1960s when he and many other Aboriginal families re-established residency on their traditional land on the mainland, Malangi's works were avidly sought by early collectors and major public collections in Europe and Australia.
It was also from a painting of this period that the key figurative elements for the now discontinued one dollar note was taken. And though the artist himself was only belatedly recognised as the originator of the designs, Malangi's figures represented a critical, symbolic component in the re-assertion of Aboriginal political and cultural identity that developed nationwide during the 1960s.
Devoted to the re-establishment of control over his Djinang land at Yathalamarra and the respect and care for its sacred places, the consistent inspiration for his artistic output never strayed far from the Djinang ancestor being Gurrumirringu and the Dhuwa moiety Djan'kawul Sisters. The intensity of detail in Malangi's Gurrumirringu paintings belies the relatively small dimensions of most of his output, but in the interplay of flora and fauna and figurative elements few Arnhemland painters match the deftness, complexity and emotive intensity that the artist achieved in his major compositions. Eschewing in most of his work the intensity of cross-hatched infill that provides a formal but essentially emblematic framework for much Arnhem Land art, Malangi's animated narrative depictions contain tightly packed detail set out on a plain background. His compositions engender a rich and continuous visual flow of sacred and secular information which, replete with keen seasonal and botanical observation, introduce the viewer to the depth and interplay of the Dhuwa moiety and Djinang sacred iconography. With the profusion of detail included in his best works, reading Malangi is somewhat like approaching the work of Giotto and other Pre-Renaissance painters where the lack of a clear hierarchy requires a more engaging interaction by the viewer.
This engagement with the interplay of surfaces and outside and inside meanings was to become a major influence for the artist Lin Onus, who, in developing close artistic and personal friendships with several artists in central Arnhem Land, became inspired by the fusion of formal and psychological dimensions perfected by Malangi and other senior Arnhem Land artists. As a storyteller (as opposed to painter) the artist also had few rivals in his retelling of the great events surrounding the ancestral beings of his country and, in his social encounters with artists in other parts of Australia, despite language and cultural divergences, Malangi was an animated conversationalist. This was demonstrated in particular when he attended the 1979 Sydney Biennale where his work was included along with fellow countrymen George Milpurrurru and Bunguwuy by the Director Nick Waterlow after a proposal by the Ramingining Artists' Cooperative Co-ordinator Peter Yates.
From the perspective of the ensuing 20 years when Aboriginal artists have become such a central part of the Australian art scene and redefined core areas of Australian cultural identity and its diversity, Malangi's contribution and presence should be recognised as a major ground-breaking part of the subsequent changes.